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Nerdette

Rebecca Skloot On Oprah, Henrietta Lacks, And Storytelling In Science

It’s been 18 years since Rebecca Skloot first started investigating the life of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells (called HeLa cells) were the first immortal cell line ever to have been discovered. They were used in testing to develop medical treatments from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments to in vitro fertilization. 

Though HeLa cells have been at the forefront of some of of the most important scientific research and medical findings in the last 60 years, little was known about Lacks’ personal life until Skloot researched her. 

Skloot’s 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was adapted into an HBO film, released this April and starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.

As Rose Byrne, the actor playing Skloot in the movie, tells Deborah, “There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t benefited” from Henrietta’s cells.

Nerdette’s Tricia Bobeda sat down with Skloot to discuss the everlasting legacy of Henrietta Lacks, how Oprah got involved in the movie, and the importance of storytelling in science.

Here are some interview highlights. 

Tricia Bobeda: Modern medicine has Henrietta’s cells at the core in so many ways, and we probably haven’t even figured out all the things we can do with them because they’re still actively being used, right?

Rebecca Skloot: Oh yeah, they’re still the standard in most laboratories. And it’s not just that her cells themselves are at the core of a lot of research that’s important -- it’s also that they are the reason we have non-HeLa cell research. Even just the most basic, elemental things like, ‘What kind of glass do you use to grow a cell in a lab?’ They figured that out with her cells.

In vitro fertilization relies on so many different technologies that are made possible from HeLa cells. So even though HeLa cells themselves aren’t used to grow embryos that are implanted into people to lead to new babies, we wouldn’t have that without the cells. So it’s kind of impossible to separate out HeLa cells and the different ways their tentacles reach into all different sorts of research.

Bobeda: Your book came out in 2010, and pretty quickly after that Oprah snatched up the movie rights. Tell us about how that came to be and at what point did you realize that she wasn't just interested in the story, but she wanted to play a role in the story?

Skloot: HBO was interested, Alan Ball was interested in doing it with HBO, and Oprah then independently became interested when the book came out. What she later told me was that a lot of people started sending her the book and saying, ‘You’ve gotta read this, you’ve gotta read this!’ So she read the book, and apparently had been talking to HBO for quite some time about doing something. 

It was the confluence of a lot of different people who cared a lot about the story saying, ‘Let’s do this together.’

Deborah (Henrietta’s daughter) had all sorts of plans for Oprah that started much earlier than anyone started talking about a movie. She had her dress picked out to go on the Oprah show years before the book came out. 

And for years she would say that she wanted Oprah to play Henrietta. At a certain point, she realized, ‘Oh, Henrietta was 30 when she died, and Oprah is my age. Oprah is my age. Hmmmm.’ And so she predicted everything that happened with this book in a way that's kind of haunting. 

I went through my old audio tapes of my interviews with Deborah, and I found this one tape of the two of us sitting in a car, and she said, ‘This book is going to be a bestseller. It’s going be in schools all across the country. It’s going to become a movie. Oprah’s going to play me. It’s going to be amazing.’ And in the background I’m going, ‘OK, Deborah. That’s just crazy. That would be amazing, but I don’t even have a publisher yet.’ 

It’s this amazing conversation to listen to now, where she just predicted every single thing that happened. 

Bobeda: The movie took about seven years to get made, and you had been working on the book for a little more than a decade before then, so that’s… 18 years of Henrietta Lacks. When you first stumbled on this woman's life and legacy, did you imagine that you’d spend the next nearly two decades so immersed in her life and everything that came afterwards?

Skloot: No, I couldn’t have possibly imagined it. I think so many writers go into a project thinking, ‘Oh this will take me two years,’ and then a decade later they go, ‘Oh, wow. That was much more complicated than I thought it was going to be.’ 

There are a lot of things that might not get done if writers knew what they were getting into. But I honestly think that even if I knew it would take as long as it took, I probably still would've. I had to. I was so obsessed with it. 

I’ve been the person who worked on this one thing. I did a lot of other things to pay the bills and get to a place where I could publish the book, but everything was in service to this story. Every freelance article I did, every little weird little job I took was about how I could get the book done, how I could get the book published. 

The moment when the book came out, I’d been working on it for 11 years, and I was just like, ‘Woohoo, it’s done! What am I going do with the rest of my life?’

And then, now it’s eight years later, and I’m still doing it. 

Bobeda: This story made you realize that behind every biological sample, there is a living creature, whether it’s human or animal. How can we, going forward, be more conscious of that?

Skloot: I do think storytelling is one of the most important aspects of that. I meet scientists all the time who say, ‘I require everyone in my lab to read this book when they start working for me.’ And I think having narratives that you can hand to people or play for people is such a huge part of that. 

We’re a storytelling people. Oral histories, cave paintings, the whole thing. We are a species that connects to stories and narrative in a way that's very important. And it's often left out, particularly with the sciences, because people think, ‘Ohhh, science is hard.’

That’s why I do what I do. We need people who see the stories and bring them out into the light, so that the people in the sciences can see them, but also so that the public can see the human stories behind the science. Scientists are often thought of as these automatons, especially when it comes to controversial types of research. 

And so to me, it goes both ways. It’s the importance of telling the stories from both sides to illustrate it. And I think we’re seeing it more and more now. This sort of Hidden Figures phenomenon is great, and that’s what we need. And there are so many more stories like this that haven’t been told. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click ‘play’ to listen to the entire interview.

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